Where else can you have a wonderfully home-cooked multi-coursed meal over conversation that touches on topics ranging from the “fruits of the poisonous tree” to the homeopathic consumption of urine (don’t’ ask)? With a group of old grad school friends, of course! Especially if the group includes such eclectic characters as Marque and Glorfindel (our cooks, and servers for the evening), Colby, (our soft-spoken hostess), and two other colourful mix-ins, the always-“natty” Linzer Torte and the always-pleasant Cottontale (all aliases, I assure you).The occasion? I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you. Suffice it to say, good food with good friends – who needs a reason?
Not unlike Shola Olunloyo’s legendary (and sadly, no more) StudioKitchen, the entire following meal was prepared by one Marque (with some input and help by Glorfindel) in a small apartment kitchen. I have cooked in it and can attest that what was turned out by Marque and Glorfindel was just short of a miracle.
Normally, I would not deign to review any of my personal friends’ cooking. To be honest, I hadn’t even thought about writing up this dinner until Marque herself hinted that she had expected one coming. Knowing that Marque and Glorfindel are the bonhommie that can withstand my amateur criticism, I decided to do an informal “review.” I know that they will appreciate my comments and that I would expect the same of them when I’m at the stove… and if any of it causes offense, I trust that they will have full satisfaction in knowing that my cooking is far from perfect. *wink*Here is what Colby, Linzer Torte, Cottontale and I delighted ourselves with: (click here to see the all of the dishes from this dinner, otherwise, click on the photos below for specific dishes.) … to the tune of Dave Brubeck, and not Kidd Rock…
Soup: Announced as a sunchoke soup, I found this dish to be uncannily like celery. (In fact, another dinner and I mused that it wasn’t celeriac, and after pressing Marque in a subsequent email, she conceded that she was mistaken and that it was indeed celeriac). Roasted and pureed, the root soup benefited from a touch of cream and grated Gruyere cheese.
The flavor was excellent – both earthy and vegital. The consistency was a bit pasty for my taste – no doubt a bit congealed from the semi-aged cheese, which, whether intentional or not, affected a bit of a “stringy” eating experience.
Salad: I especially appreciated the fact that no additional dressing was added to this rather simple bed of lettuce. This allowed for the mild sweet-tang of the oil-marinated peppers and artichokes that topped the tuft of green to shine through. Yum! Texturally, I wished there were some counterpoint – like crunchy nuts, seeds, meaty olives or crunchy root vegetable dices or cucumbers. Otherwise, this was a light dish appreciated for its simplicity.
Asparagus: Reminiscent of a recent asparagus course encountered at Jean Georges in New York, Marque displayed the simplicity of the springtime treat with her steamed pencil asparagus with asparagus–shallot sauce. The asparagus were *perfectly* steamed – still a bit crips, and emerald green – and nicely shaved toward the stalks. The asparagus-shallot sauce had a touch of Gruyere. I especially appreciated the oniony shallot element, which dominated the sauce’s flavor (could hardly detect the asparagus aspect).
“Breakfast:” This dish was as fun to think about as it was to eat. I particularly enjoy “breakfast for dinner.” In a joint effort, Marque and Glorfindel overshot.
Achieved the extraordinary goal of making a delicate and light version of the traditional Mexican breakfast food, huevos rancheros. My quail egg could have been bit a bit runnier for my taste (although I noticed with some envy that some others at the table had expertly finished eggs that exploded and oozed over the rest of the elements nicely). The salsa was both refreshing with cilantro and piqiuant from a kick of spice. The refried beans were the highlight – a full-flavored “chunky” version that wonderfully featured toothsome pinto bean fragments mixed throughout. The grilled tortilla wasn’t quite as crisp as I had hoped, but acted as a sturdy textural counterpoint nonetheless.
This course was so flavorful that I didn’t mind the absence of the traditional cheese garnish. A nice little dollop of tangy-cooling sour cream or crème fraiche would have added a nice, but unnecessary, touch of luxury.
Not to be outdone, Glorfindel presented a fantabulous side of steel cut oats, appreciated for their grainy heft that was so wonderfully nutty and hearty. The oats were jazzed up with an amazingly creative kumquat and red wine reduction compote. The citrus-sourness of the nicely rendered kumquats, tender peel and all, was tamed by a deep sweetness of the red wine. Mixed with the steel cut oats, the compote made for a very happy food-marriage. This tart-sweet component worked as an excellent foil for the savory creaminess of the huevos.
Shellfish: Premontorily, our conversation landed on Boticelli’s Birth of Venus. Expressing my *love* of scallops, I joked that if a scallop shell bearing Venus herself were presented to me, I’d send her back to Neptune and demand that he replace her with what was unrightfully taken from it!
If ever there was a dish that was created to “play to the critics” Marque hit the mark with this course. As if putting three of my favorite ingredients on the same plate weren’t enough, she had to prepare each on excellently!
This course absolute stopped the show. Two giant sea scallops were presented, ineffably shy of rare but far from done – in other words, perfect! Slightly caramelized, one scallop sat triumphant on a beautiful bed of shredded roasted golden beets and crumbled chevre topped with a crispy Gruyere crisp while the other looked on in all its naked glory. The flavors were at once sweet (from the beets and the shellfish), salty (cheese) and tangy (chevre). As well, I really appreciated the textural interplay – the cheese crisp shattered nicely at my command, the scallops quivered in a satiny tease and the roasted beets provided a nice welcomed firm resistance. Brava, Marque!Fish: Perhaps it was because I was too overwhelmed by my scallops that I didn’t properly consider or appreciate the red snapper on a bed of whipped potatoes. Although I prefer my snapper raw or steamed, I must admit that Marque’s demi red snapper fillet was delicate as cooked snapper can be – having avoided the easy pitfall of meaty, chewy and over-doneness – and well-seasoned too. The crème-fraiche–laced whipped potatoes were ethereally light and smooth with an appreciable zing.
Flavor and preparation aside, I felt that this course was a bit unbalanced. Marque remarked that there was another element to the dish, but that she had forgotten what it was. God bless her soul! I suspect her initial instincts, whatever the forgotten element, would not only have evened out the rather flat white-on-white presentation, but also the mushy-on-mushy duo.
Fruit and Cheese: A beautifully oven roasted Bosc pear reinvigorated my senses. Halved, the pear was topped with a generous mound of Gorgonzola-mascarpone, sprinkled with candied pinenuts and sauced with a sweet Riesling reduction. While preserving the sturdiness of the flesh, the roasting had melted away any bit of graininess that might have dimpled this dish. I would have appreciated a more salty blue cheese, like Roquefort, but for dessert, Gorgonzola was appropriate. The mascarpone element however, dissolved in the heat and dribbled into the Reisling sauce, which I had hoped to enjoy more on its own – it was very good.
Dessert: Our pastry chef, Marque, admitted that the crème fraiche panna cotta was a first and that she feared it hadn’t set as she had hoped. Although her suspicions were correct, I didn’t think that this course failed. Instead of a more jello-like panna cotta, we were delighted with a zingy custard and pudding hybrid that walked a fine line between sour and sweet – yogurtabulous is how I would describe it. The mini-ramekin was brimming with fresh blueberries and a cut long-stem strawberry.
Truffles: As if the foregoing weren’t enough to send me packing in cheer, a dish of home-made truffles were brought out to enjoy. Two versions: rum-spiked dark chocolate ganache with and without almonds. The couverture (milk chocolate?) was nice crisp, but still melding nicely into the very heady rum-infused treat inside.
This dinner was resplendent with great food and company. Thanks for the hospitality Marque and Glorfindel! Thanks for your thoughtfulness! I look forward to many more of such meals to come!